Flatlining?

I recently came across the expression “to practise resurrection”.  Not in the sense, presumably, of the  film Flatliners, a 1990 film (remade unsuccessfully in 2017) in which Julia Roberts, Kiefer Sutherland and Kevin Bacon attempt to artificially create near-death experiences.

The suggestion I was reading about is that since we know we will be resurrected with Christ, we should endeavour to bring as much of that experience from the future into the present, rather in the same sense that the Kingdom of God is here and now and not just future.

So how do we practice resurrection?  We could start with Paul’s remarkable comment in Galatians 2:20:

I have been crucified with Christ, and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.  The life that I now live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God…

So if I take Paul at his word, I’m already dead.  The life of Christ is being lived out through me.  How this works in practice is further expanded in Colossians chapter 3, which tells us we have been ‘raised with Christ’ and gives lists of the attitudes and behaviours we should intentionally adopt, or avoid.

Dead people have no possessions, no hopes and dreams, and no desires.  If I am truly dead, I too will have laid all those things aside and kept only what Christ has given back to me.  As many mission workers through the centuries have discovered, abandonment to Christ alone sets us free from the shackles of our own ambitions, wants and property.

Dead people also are invulnerable to temptation.  The flesh has no control over them.  Shortness of temper, gossip, gluttony and lust have no power over them.  If I am truly like the dead, I will master the many temptations to sin that come my way daily.

It is not as easy to be a living sacrifice as a dead one.  While my death with Christ may be metaphorically true, my ego still lives on in this body he has chosen to live his life in.  And that is actually good, because we are not called to be zombies for Jesus, reanimated bodies with no life of their own.  For the time being we are in symbiosis, as I pointed out last month.  The object of the Christian life is not, like a Buddhist, to annihilate the self so that it gets consumed by the divine, but to attune myself so to the divine that we can operate as one without extinguishing my identity.

So we live on in the flesh, daily practising what it means to die to self and live in Christ.  How does that impact on our leadership style, as we learn to lead humbly and accountably?  How does it impact on our followership as we learn to set aside our own pride and ambition?  And how does it affect our daily witness as we live out our love for our brothers and sisters while working in a multi-cultural team?

As we lay aside our old way of doing things and put on the new way (Colossians 3:9-10), we bring some of the future Kingdom of Heaven into the present.  Maybe we’re trying to create a near-death experience after all?

For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.

Colossians 3:3

Who?

I recently came across a commentary on the life of influential mystic and author Evelyn Underhill in which the author suggested that central to her thought and writing were two questions: who is God, and who am I.

Most of Syzygy’s readers will know God… to a certain extent.  We will know about God, have our understanding of the Trinity honed in good churches or Bible Colleges, we will have a personal relationship with God, and probably a sense of calling to what we are doing now.  Though none of us can say we really know God.  What mortal soul can truly plumb the depths of the infinite Deity?  We can only know what God graciously self-reveals.

We will probably know ourselves well.  We may have done Belbin, MBTI, Enneagram, Birkin and many other self-awareness exercises.  Hopefully we know ourselves well enough to tell which of our buttons are being pushed, and emotionally intelligent enough to respond in a measured and godly way when under pressure.  Yet few of us can truly know ourselves – we are so complex that when we think we know ourselves, we probably don’t.

Philosophers have spent lifetimes trying to answer these questions, but with respect to both them and  Mrs Underhill, those two questions only lay the foundations on which a third question rests.  This question is “Who are we?”  Who are God and I together, or – even better – who are God and our community, team, or family together?

We have blogged before on the concept of symbiosis, to illustrate the Pauline doctrine of Christ in me/I am in Christ(Colossians 1:27/2 Corinthians 5:17).  But what does it really look like for two beings, one eternal and omnipotent, and one transient and feeble, to combine in one frail body with the result that glory is brought to the One without extinguishing the individuality of the other?  This, surely, is the big conundrum for all of us in mission: how can we become so united with God that we are transformed sufficiently for the outcome to be striking to those we minister to?  How does ‘our’ ministry become God’s ministry through us?  How are we involved without interfering?

We see glimpses of such transformation in the lives of some of the Apostles, or later saints like Francis, or maybe even contemporaries like Mother Teresa.  What they show us is how to walk away from all worldly attractions so that we are truly free to abandon ourselves to the Lord.  As we do so, we are filled with him in a way that we cannot be when we keep our hands full.

Or to rephrase that in a more contemporary way: how can we live in such a countercultural way that those around us find their preconceptions about life and Christianity so undermined that they have to find out more about what motivates us.  Perhaps that is the key to 21st century mission: not changing the message but changing the messenger.

Together?

Source: www.freeimages.com

Together is a word many of us love.  We enjoy being together, doing together, talking together, worshipping together.  But our Western idea of together is a very individualistic understanding: a voluntary, non-committal, temporary association in a shared activity which doesn’t compromise our individuality.

The church, despite its language and possibly even its hopes, has a tendency to reflect this individualism, and so can mission training establishments and sending agencies.  As a result, our mission workers are often in the same mould, and may struggle to appreciate the community dynamics of some of the cultures where we minister, in which tribe, community and family are more important than the individual.

I have had several conversations with mission workers expressing frustrations at the demands local believers place on them – yet those demands often stem from their different understanding of the nature of church, which we encourage by our use of words like ‘family’ and ‘brother’, which can mean so much more in their culture than they do in ours.

In many ways, such cultures are far closer to the Israel of Bible times than they are to ours, and if we think more corporately as we read the Bible, we will see less of the western personal salvation which we are accustomed to, and more of a community being saved.  For example, Paul’s revolutionary theological revelation of the mystery of “Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Colossians 1:27).  As westerners when we read that, we tend to assume it means “Christ in me”, which is indeed compatible both with our understanding of our individual personal salvation and the subsequent verse 29 where Paul goes on to talk about God’s power working in him.

But the culture of that day, and the people to whom the letter was originally written, would have been far more likely to read that as “Christ in us”.  In those communities, where people were regularly in and out of one another’s houses (Acts 2:46), understanding themselves as part of a body (Romans 12), and experiencing profound love for one another (Colossians 1:4), an individual expression of their faith must have been unthinkable.  They were a new nation, a new family.  Christianity may have supplanted their previous commitments but didn’t change their understanding of how they fitted into community and family.

Perhaps we would have more impact on such cultures if we intentionally adapted our thinking so that our understanding of “together” was a binding, permanent, committed, irrevocable sharing of all that we have and are with our new family.  Maybe then they will know we are the disciples of Jesus because they will see our genuine love for one another (John 13:35).

 

Removing the rocks

Source: www.freeimages.com

I have blogged before about sowing in hope and about sowing what we will not reap.  As mission workers we sometime need these encouragements when it seems that ours is a thankless task bearing little fruit. Some of us are working hard and faithfully in places where it is hard to be in faith for even one person to express an interest in the gospel, let alone a mass movement to Christ breaking out.

Recently a retired mission worker told me that in his youth he had met an elderly mission worker who was hard at work but apparently achieving little.  As young enthusiastic recruits are liable to do, he asked the old man what he thought he was achieving.  “I’m not even planting the seed of the word,” came the reply.  “I’m still moving the rocks out of the field”.

We need to be aware that wherever we are ministering, we might inadvertently be placing rocks rather than removing them.  If we do not live like the locals, dress like the locals, eat like the locals, we may be unintentionally building barriers rather than bridges.

So what does removing rocks look like?  We should be asking ourselves – and our local contacts – what we communicate about Christianity that might actually put them off listening to our testimony.  So if we can address those issues, we may stand more of a chance of being seen as religious people they can engage with.  Part of their misconception about Christianity will be that they assume what they see in western media is Christian.  We ourselves are only too aware that television and movies seldom present Christianity well, but Christians are often perceived as decadent or immoral by others for whom this is their principal way of seeing the West.

Some of the things we could think about doing which might remove some rocks could include:

Prayer.  We pray so constantly and naturally that we hardly notice it.  We hold regular prayer meetings which take place in the privacy of a home or office so others don’t see it (Matthew 6:5).  But in some cultures where prayer is much more obvious or regular, they don’t necessarily realise we pray.  So if we very obviously and regularly stopped to say a prayer, they may well realise that we too are a people who take prayer seriously.  Moslem people might be more impressed with our faith, for example, if they knew we stopped to pray 5 times a day!

Fasting.  Some cultures, notably Islamic ones, make a big thing of fasting at certain seasons.  They do not see us fast, even if we do, because we try to keep it secret (Matthew 6:16).  But if we made more of an obvious effort to keep Lent, it would be a great opportunity to show people that we take fasting seriously.

Giving.  In line with the passage in Matthew quoted above, we try to keep our personal giving quiet as well.  But our giving is not only financial, but in our support for the needy.  Jesus also taught us to let people see our good deeds so that can glorify God (Matthew 5:16).  We are understandably reluctant to trumpet our acts of charity like Pharisees, but we do need to let them be seen.

Furnishings.  I have blogged before about how western architecture and décor don’t necessarily communicate spirituality to people of other cultures.  Even something as simple as having book stands to keep our Bible off the floor will show that we are people who treat it as sacred rather than just another book.  Removing our shoes when entering a place of worship might communicate something about reverence as well.

Clothing.  Much debate has taken place over how we should dress in order not to give offence, but just fitting into a local culture is a start.  This is the reason Hudson Taylor wanted the CIM missionaries to adopt Chinese dress.  I am known for preferring shorts to trousers, but in the Moslem community in which I currently live, I never wear shorts outside even for a quick visit to the shops.  Similarly, when I worked in Thailand, I shaved off my beard because Thai people don’t grow them, but grew it longer when living among people who do grow beards.

Attention to such simple things as how we appear to and behave with the people around us is the first step in removing the rocks.  St Paul summarises this strategy as:

I have become all things to all people, so that by all means I can save some.

(1 Corinthians 9:22)

Name your heroes

“Hudson Taylor”

As regular followers of Syzygy will be aware, we have four cars which we lend to mission workers on home assignment in the UK.  You can read more about this on the Syzygy Cars page.  By the grace of God we have been given money – and cars – generously which has enabled us to have very nice cars, but an interesting problem has emerged: we now have two VW Passat estates and we occasionally get confused about which one we’re talking about.  So we have tried calling them 57 and 58 (referring to the registration number), or could simply use their colours, blue and silver.

But we’ve decided to give them names.  And we’re choosing names which will honour our missionary heroes.  We’re calling them CT Studd and Hudson Taylor.  And just to keep things balanced, the other two are being called Gladys Aylward and Amy Carmichael.  Which prompts me to wonder who are your missionary heroes, and why?

They may not be giants of the faith, but then most of us aren’t.  They may not have got everything right, and none of us do, not even the great missionary apostle St Paul.  They may not have seen many converts themselves, like David Livingstone, but their faith inspired others to incredible acts of service for God.

One of my own personal favourites is an old man I met in Mozambique.  He had spent many years as a mission worker in Brazil before retiring and returning to England.  When he was 80 he asked God for 10 more years of life so that he could resume serving as a mission worker, and went to start a new work in Mozambique.  So much for a quiet retirement perfecting the golf swing and maintaining the garden!

Who are your inspirations?  If we are truly standing on the shoulders of giants, do we know who the giants are, and what contribution they’ve made to our lives?  Are we able to emulate them in their strengths, while being fully aware of their weaknesses and avoiding them?  And if they are still alive, have we thanked them?  And if not, how do we honour their memory?

A lingering fragrance?

A while ago I picked some delightfully fragrant flowers which I left in a vase in the kitchen for quite a while.  They filled the whole room with a sweet smell which was almost like incense.  It lifted my spirits every time I entered the room.  But after a short time the flowers, unsurprisingly, withered.  Yet the fragrance remained for a long time after.

I wonder what remains of us when we move on to somewhere else.  Is it a sweet fragrance or a bitter aftertaste?  Do people miss us or are they glad we are gone?  Paul suggests that this can work both ways.  He says in 2 Corinthians 2 that we are the “sweet aroma of Christ”, but points out that while the aroma is attractive to those who are being saved, it is repulsive to those who are not.  In the same way, the presence of Christians, the expression of our belief, and the tolerance of our faith are obnoxious to some.  And sometimes they have a point – our behaviour can actually repel people if we are too judgemental or outspoken.

A better approach is softly softly.  It is wise not to get drawn into arguments with people like this but simply to let them see our behaviour at its very best.  Proverbs 15:1 says “a gentle answer turns away wrath” and Peter encourages us to:

Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.

(1 Peter 2:12)

Actions, as is often pointed out, speak louder than words.  They echo long after we have gone.  I wonder how much of aroma of Christ we leave behind in other people’s hearts.

Build a RAFT!

Is this going to help you survive?
Source: www.freeimages.com

We have written about the challenges of re-entry on a number of occasions but so far we have not introduced our readers to the RAFT.  This helpful analogy was introduced by David Pollock who was an expert in transition.  His point was that the RAFT helps us leave well, so that we don’t feel we have unfinished business when we arrive back in our passport country.

Imagine a RAFT made of four logs lashed together.  Each log represents a different aspect of an emotionally-healthy departure.  They are:

Reconciliation.  It can be tempting when we know there is tension between us and someone else to just leave it, since we won’t be seeing them again.  But St Paul writes “Live in peace with everyone, as far as it depends on you” (Romans 12:18).  In other words, whether it’s your fault or not, you take responsibility for sorting it out.  Take the time to restore damaged relationships, to repent and ask (and offer) forgiveness.  Failure to do this can lead to a feeling that there is unfinished business which prevents us getting closure.  Unresolved issues can also overshadow the development of new relationships in our destination.

Affirmation.  Often people want to thank us for what we’ve done and what we’ve meant to them.  It may not fit our culture well and we might be embarrassed to hear people say nice things about us (let’s face it, we usually wait till the funeral to say them) but in some cultures it’s appropriate to honour people publicly and effusively.  Likewise we should be prepared to honour others and thank them for their work, welcome, and contribution to our lives and ministry.  Give cards or farewells gifts to people so they have something to remember you by.  It demonstrates that we value people.

Farewells.  Make sure you say goodbye properly to everyone.  Not just with one large party where you don’t have time for anybody, but with individual meals.  Make sure you give people quality time.  Try to finish your ministry responsibilities long before your departure so you have time for everyone – and for recovering from the emotions of saying so many goodbyes.  Also say goodbye to buildings, places, pets that have been special to you, and belongings you will be leaving behind so that you are consciously severing any nostalgic links you have to places as you move on.  And hold a ‘decommissioning’ service.  Transition is easier to cope with when there is a ritual element to it, so leaving well should include a way of handing over well.

Think Destination.  In the busyness of saying goodbye, selling or giving away belongings and handing over ministry, it can be easy to forget the flip side of leaving – re-entry.  Good preparation for re-entry can help ease the transition by resolving in advance all the issues about where you’re going to live, school your children, what support you will need as you transition and who will provide it.

By building a sturdy RAFT, you will have more chance of surviving the perilous journey ahead!

 

For further advice on leaving the mission field, see our helpful Guide to Re-Entry

Suckers!

Those people who have roses in their gardens may occasionally come across a new vigorous growth coming from low down in the plant.  They may well rejoice at the new life in the plant, but they would be wrong to.

It’s most likely a sucker.  These are shoots coming off the wild root onto which a cultivated rose has been grafted.  If allowed to grow it will take all the energy from the roots and gradually starve the rose, which will wither and die, leaving a wild rose in its place.

What has this to do with mission work?

Common to all Christians are the habits and thought patterns we got into before we were saved.  We may have had struggles with addictions, an exaggerated tendency to despondency, fear of failure or a possessive need to be loved.  When we become Christians, in theory our life has been transformed.  St Paul talks about us being ‘dead to sin’.  He tells us we have been buried with Christ through having been baptised into his death, so that we can walk in newness of life (Romans 6). But he also writes: ‘Lay aside the old self… be renewed in the spirit of your mind… and put on the new self’ to people who were believers and who presumable had already been baptised (Ephesians  4:22-24).

So there is still something for us to do to facilitate our transformation into being a new creation (Galatians 2:20).  Sometimes those old habits come creeping back, like the sucker on the rose.  Many of us make the mistake of thinking that a given negative action in our lives was an isolated act of sin, repent of it, and move on.  But the same ‘isolated’ act then occurs over and over again, becoming a weakness, and eventually a gaping hole in our armour.

In the same way, a good gardener will cut off the sucker as soon as she identifies it, but it will grow back again and again and again.  Because the problem is not the sucker, but the root it grows from.

Changing the metaphor slightly, Christians are wild olive branches grafted into the cultivated olive tree (Romans 11).  But just as with the rose, there is a tendency for the old wild plant to reassert itself.

For mission workers, often under great stress and feeling isolated or lonely, it can be very tempting to fall back into old habits.  They bring us short-term comfort even though we have the challenge of the guilt we carry with us.  They become our secret sin, and we lie to ourselves telling ourselves it’s alright because it’s just a method of coping with the stress.  But sin grows, like the sucker, sapping the life of a beautiful rose.  And one day it will be seen by everyone for what it is – bringing down our ministry, our family, possibly even our own walk with God.

We need to tackle the root of the flesh which makes us vulnerable to such sin.  We need to see it for what it is, expose the lie it is telling us, and root out the base desire.  Sometime we need help with that – prayer partners, accountability partners, even deliverance ministry.  If you would like to have a confidential discussion with Syzygy about this, email us on info@syzygy.org.uk.

A good tree cannot produce bad fruit; a rotten tree cannot produce good fruit.

(Matthew 7:18)

Footprints in your soul

Anyone who has done any amount of walking in the hills will be aware that many footprints leave a mark on the landscape.

The least trod paths are denoted by shorter grass.  Those used a little more have grass worn away into bare soil.  More use starts to wear away the soil and form ruts, and this is where real erosion starts.  Water seeping down the mountainside finds its way into the ruts and runs more easily downhill, eroding the remaining soil.  Stones are exposed and come away, leaving a great gash in the mountainside which becomes an impromptu stream and needs repairing before irreparable damage is done to the landscape.

Mission workers may be less aware of how words can cut channels into their souls in a similar way.  Each negative comment can leave a footprint behind.  Repeated often enough they can become a rut which begins to shape our thinking.  Innocent words will run into that rut causing even more damage.

So a child who hears “You’re stupid” will be hurt.  If it’s said often enough she will get used to hearing it, and start to believe it.  Continue hearing it and even a casual comment like “We don’t do things like that around here” will be heard as “You’re stupid”.  The child will either become completely crushed, expecting people to realise she’s stupid, or she’ll fight back, and try and prove them wrong.  Both responses are unhelpful to her ongoing psychological health and the relationships she forms.

In the transactional analysis method of psychotherapy, expressions such as “You’re stupid” are known as scripts.  Like scripts for a play, they are written for us by an author, usually an authority figure like a parent, pastor or teacher.  We then repeat them in an inner monologue, reinforced by others repeating them, until we play the part that someone else has written for us.

Syzygy meets lots of mission workers who are acting out scripts.  Expressions like “You’ll never achieve anything”, “You should hurry up” and “You should work hard” have left a deep imprint in their soul.  Many of them have burned themselves out in the mission field trying either to live us to the scriptwriter’s expectations, or to prove the scriptwriter wrong.  Perhaps you’re one of them.

Recognising a script is half the battle to releasing yourself from it.  Realising that you don’t have to repeat it is the other half.  Just reading this blog has probably made you aware of the existence of a script in your life.  It may take some time to get the second half right, but at least you are now free to exercise some choice in whether you believe the script or not.  Now you can decide not to believe it, not to follow its instructions.

“It was for freedom Christ has set us free” wrote Paul to the Galatians (5:1).  Why wait to live in the fullness of freedom?  Free your mind now from the harmful effects of the negative words spoken to you!

 

Tim speaks about this and other issues affecting our identity in Christ in retreats and workshops called Managing the Stress of Mission.  The next one will be held at Penhurst Retreat Centre in August 2017, and they are available for use as part of team conferences and staff training days on request.

Do single men really not go?

A recent blog on the Crossworld website prompts me to comment on the issue of there being so few single men on the mission field.

It is of course not a new phenomenon in missions but its significance, as the author points out, is that it becomes hard to mentor men for maturity.  It can also lead to a church full of faithful women, which does not seem attractive to male unbelievers because it does not model an image of strong masculinity despite its focus on a male saviour.  So let’s consider some potential causes.

1) Statistics: There are generally fewer men in the church, so fewer are available to go, whether single or married.  In many UK churches the single women outnumber single men 4:1, so there are bound to be fewer single men going. Those single men who do go to the mission field are outnumbered even more, frequently by 8 or 9 to 1.  This increases opportunities for them to marry, so many do not stay single very long.  Thus the problem is perpetuated.

2) Ministry fulfilment: do men have more opportunities for ministry on the home side?  Although the percentage is steadily increasing, women still only make up about 1/3 of Anglican clergy in the UK[1].  In October 2015 Christianity Today reported that around 10% of US churches have women in the sole or senior leadership role (though twice that percentage attend seminary)[2].   Some traditions do not have any formal role for women in leadership.  Perhaps this means that men can more easily find an expression for their Christian service within their home church or denomination, so technically it is not that fewer men are going into overseas mission, but more women, as they seek an outlet for their desire to serve God which is harder for them to find at home.  But the result is that more single women go.

A bigger question is not why there are fewer single men in cross-cultural mission, but what are we doing about it?  Here are some suggestions:

Churches  –

  • Do you actively seek out men you think might have a future in the mission field and challenge them to go? Do you suggest to young men looking to start out on a career that they might consider a life serving God abroad, or even a few years?
  • Do you promote mission as an equal opportunity and not just for women? Do your male leaders model a mission heart or is it only your women who talk, pray or go in mission?
  • Do you tell stories in your sermons of brave and heroic men like St Paul, Francis Xavier or Robert Thomas who took the gospel to far-flung places at great cost to themselves because of their one true love – Jesus?
  • Do we teach a high view of singleness as a way to serve the Lord?  Do your young men have accountability relationships so they have an opportunity to focus their attention on developing godly character?

Agencies –

  • Do your placements seem attractive to single men?  What can you do to make your mobilisation more appealing to them?
  • Are you thinking through what their needs are? Do you try to send teams of men so that there are other men around for them to build friendships with?
  • Do you foster a culture which allows men to express their masculinity appropriately?  Can they truly “feel like a real man” when they are engaged in the activities you co-ordinate?
  • Do we mentor single men in the field so that they can be fulfilled in their singleness and not struggling?

And for all of us –

  • Do we unconsciously model disappointment if our sons sacrifice a good career to go into mission, while we think it’s a great opportunity for our daughters?
  • Do we think mission is a good place for those poor women who have not been able to find partners, but expect men to marry and settle down?
  • And do we pray that more single men will listen to the call of God on their lives and follow him to the ends of the earth – and do we encourage them to do so when we think he’s calling them?

Or was Gladys Aylward right (see John Piper’s Desiring God Podcast) – do the men called to the mission field just not listen to God as well as the women do?

 

[1] Statistics for Mission 2012

[2] http://www.christianitytoday.com/women-leaders/2015/october/state-of-female-pastors.html

Strategic thinking?

We conclude this series of blogs on the successful occupation of the Promised Land by thinking about strategy.

This is a word that is often on our lips.  We need it to make sure our organisation is heading in the right direction.  We use it as a plumbline to check whether new ministries add value to our mission or distract us from it.  We think about it when we start a new endeavour.  Without strategy, we may be doomed to sleepwalking into obsolescence.  But do we overdo it?  Is our missional thinking dominated by secular management theory rather than Biblical values?

In the book of Joshua there is clear evidence of strategy: the Israelites crossed the Jordan, conquered the largest city in the river valley, went up onto the hills beyond and secured a bridgehead, then carried out an offensive to subdue the south before a final campaign to take the north.

Yet nowhere is there any evidence of the Israelites strategizing.  There are no war councils, no boffins, no new weapons.  Their strategist is clearly God, who tells them which city to attack, and frequently even determines the tactics (Joshua 8:2) and took part in the battles (Joshua 10:11-13).  The one time they make a strategic error is when they don’t consult God (Joshua 9:4).  Divine prompting is the key to their success.  Which brings us back to where we usually start each year: prayer.  Because only through consistent, intentional seeking of God can we discern God’s will for our organisations and determine strategy which is often radical, innovative and unorthodox.

Other Biblical examples of divine involvement determining strategy include:

  • Philip preaching the gospel to the first African gentile (Acts 8);
  • Ananias taking the gospel to the enemy (Acts 9)
  • Peter taking the gospel to the first European gentiles (Acts 10);
  • Barnabas and Paul being set aside for their first missionary journey (Acts 13);
  • Paul being led in a dream to take the gospel to Europe (Acts 16);

You can probably think of others.  There are also numerous examples of modern mission workers who just went, not knowing where they were going, following the prompting of God, like Jackie Pullinger.

So if our missionary endeavours are to have the impact in the nations where we work that the Israelites had on taking the Promised Land, let us devote ourselves to prayer.  Our words will be more effective if they are dropped into our hearts by God.  Our attitudes will be more compassionate if they mirror more closely the character of God.  Our actions will be more effective if they are guided by us being ever more sensitive to the Holy Spirit.

We have mentioned before in these blogs the habit of St Aidan and the other Celtic monks who brought the gospel to the Anglo-Saxons, balancing their ministry with their prayer.  Based on a small island cut off from the mainland at high tide, they retreated to the island and slept, prayed and ate while it was isolated.  When the sea receded enough, they crossed to the mainland and ministered to the locals.  Less activity and more prayer made them more effective.  How counter-cultural would that be if we made it our practice today?

Permission to fail

Source: www.freeimages.com

Source: www.freeimages.com

“Give it a try.  If it doesn’t work out, come back and we’ll try something else.”

How many of us have heard those words from the leader of our sending church or mission agency?  Likely very few, because the possibility of failure is usually the elephant in the room, carefully tiptoed around as we discuss prayer, faith and strategy.  We talk with due diligence about exit strategies in the event of a disaster, but seldom address the stark fact that our mission may go spectacularly belly up (as my first assignment did).  That’s why I like the casual optimism of King Saul’s son Jonathan: “Let’s go and pick a fight with some Philistines.  Perhaps the Lord will be with us” (1 Samuel 14:6 – my translation!).

Failure is the unwelcome guest in our discussions because we fear failure.  And that fear has many unintended consequences which can make a difficult situation worse.  We can put a brave face on things and not let people know how hard we find things, thereby depriving ourselves of encouragement and member care, which only increases our stress and risk of burnout.  We can be reluctant to admit in our prayer letters that things are not going well, so we don’t mobilise effective prayer into areas where we’re challenged.  And we’re reluctant to hit the ‘panic button’ to mobilise extra help before it’s too late.

So what is it about failure that makes us so fearful?

We fear failing because of our own character weakness.  Many of us nurse inadequacies we’ve held since our earliest childhood: driven hard by overachieving parents who expect nothing less than excellence, or conversely trying to prove wrong the teacher, parent or pastor who told us we were useless or would never achieve anything.  This underlying motif drives us forward compulsively even though we’re not even aware it’s there until somebody points it out to us.

We fear failing because we might lose support.  Our friends and churches have poured their prayer, encouragement and finance into our mission.  How do we tell them we messed up?  Will they stop supporting us?  If fact that’s highly unlikely.  Most of them will be committed to you because of relationship not performance, and those who withdraw their relationship when you don’t perform were not really supporters in the first place.

We fear failing because of the impact on our faith.  Why did God send us?  Was God not with us?  Why was our work not blessed?  The reasons for any given failure are frequently complex and inscrutable, but what we can be sure of is that Jesus promised he would be with us even though life would be hard (Matthew 28:20, John 16:33).  St Paul, no stranger to unexpected outcomes, reminded the Roman church that nothing can separate us from the love of God, acknowledging in the very same sentence the reality of bad things happening to us (Romans 8:39).

This perspective that things don’t always work out quite as we intended is a very helpful way to start our mission.  And even when things go badly wrong, there are still ways in which God can use it for good even though the journey has been painful for us (Genesis 50:20).  Often the greatest work that God does is not through us, but in us.  This needs to be an understanding which we share with our agency, church, family and friends so that we feel we have permission to fail, because we recognise that in a fallen and damaged world, not everything works out as we hope.

Syzygy regularly helps mission workers coming to terms with failure, and we’ve experienced it ourselves.  One of us even wrote a blog about it.  So if you’re struggling in this area, do please get in touch for a confidential discussion by emailing info@syzygy.org.uk.  We’re confident we can help get you back on track, or find the alternative role for you.

Failing isn’t fatal.  Not starting again, is.

Onward and upward!

img_20161028_104636Walking in the Lake District last week inspired me with this final blog in a series examining how we react when it seems God’s plan for our lives isn’t working out.  That’s the experience of most of us who have tried to walk up a mountain.  The path doesn’t go where the map said it should.  It disappears from time to time.  Sometimes it’s rocky; sometimes it’s boggy.  Our legs ache, our feet are blistering and our boots are leaking.  The fog comes down and we can get no objective sense of where we are.  We can get cold, wet, frightened and confused.  Just another October day on Helvellyn!

Yet we persist!  There is something in our desire to get to the top that propels us onwards no matter how hard it gets.  Only injury or safety issues would make us quit.  Why?  What motivates us to slog, exhausted, up a steep rocky path?

For some of us it’s the sense of personal achievement, or the glory of the selfie on the summit.  Perhaps it’s the prospect of an incredible view, or another mountain ticked off the to-do list.  Or the gulp from our hip-flask which is our reward.  But it might just be that it links us in to something bigger than ourselves.

Christians too keep on slogging forwards even when the going gets tough.  Something draws us onwards and upwards and we can’t stop no matter how hard it gets.  St Paul wrote about this impulse, in a very dynamic passage reflecting his love of sport:

I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus

Here, in Philippians 3:14, he expresses the same drive as the fell-walker not to be deflected by the challenges in his life, as he makes progress in his spiritual life.  He has a goal in sight and he is determined to get there.  It’s not dissimilar to his focus in the famous passage in Hebrews 12, which also references sport.

I once drove in a Swiss tunnel which took a road up a mountainside in a novel way.  It was constructed inside the mountain and was a spiral.  Drilled with precision, every 360 degree rotation raised the driver a few hundred meters until three complete rotations took the car to the top of the pass.  Sometimes this is what is happening in our spiritual lives while our circumstances seem unchanged.  So next time you feel like you’re stuck in a tunnel going round and round in circles, remember you may actually be going up!

Diverted?

Where next? (Source: www.freeimages.com)

Where next? (Source: www.freeimages.com)

As a follow up to last week’s discussion (Derailed) here is a further reflection on the challenge of feeling that somehow we are no longer on the mainline.  This is a challenge for most of us mission workers who are more like Martha than Mary, because we have an urgent desire to be getting somewhere in our ministry.  Such is the impact of the Protestant Work Ethic on our thinking.

Even though we may wish to be thundering at full speed down the mainline, pulling a prestigious express full of significant people, God may have extremely valid reasons for wanting to stop us for a bit.  We find the experience frustrating, but we need to remember that it’s not all about us, and there may be other parts of the rail network having an impact on our personal journey.  So here are some reasons why trains unaccountably stop from time to time (other than to let Edward Thomas write a poem about it).

  • Filling up. Trains need to refuel and while it’s normally done at specific times (such as home assignment) it occasionally needs to be done at other times too.  Take the opportunity to go on a longer retreat than you might normally have time for, or have an extra debrief to make sure you’re ready to go when the signal changes.
  • Collecting other carriages. Sometimes the train I’m on waits at a station for another train to come in behind it and be coupled up to make one longer train.  Is this an opportunity for you to take new supporters on your journey with you?  Spend more time investing in your sending church and building relationships.  Maybe you can recruit some new team members.
  • Waiting for the line to clear. Sometimes the signal is at red because there is a blockage down the road that needs to be cleared.  I have experienced times when other things have needed to fall in place before I can get on with what I feel God has given me to do.  Or perhaps another train is coming through and we need to get out of its way or it would damage us.
  • Taking an alternative route. How often does God take us down a branch line for no obvious reason?  Maybe it’s just to enjoy the scenery, and pootle along at a gentler pace.
  • Routine maintenance. Well, now you’ve got the time, go and see the doctor, dentist, optician, counsellor, life coach…  Make the most of your pause and check all the moving parts are properly greased!

Finally, if you feel you’re stuck in the station waiting for the light to turn green, why not take the time to look around and see who else is in the station?  Maybe it’s time to make some new friends.

We can’t always tell why God shunts us into a siding at times.  Why did Jesus have to wait until his 30s?  David sitting in the desert on the run from Saul must have thought his calling would never happen.  Moses had to spend 40 years in the wilderness thinking he’d missed his opportunity.  What was Paul doing with his life before Barnabas brought him to Antioch?  But if we can learn one thing from this experience is that it’s God who is in the signal box, not us, and we have to learn to trust him to pull the right levers at the right time.

No one is an island

1112138276The recent news of a pastor beheaded by ISIS in a central Asian republic brought to me by a trusted friend reminds us of the continual challenges faced by our brothers and sisters in parts of the world where living openly for Christ really does mean putting their lives on the line.

The writers of the New Testament letters frequently referred to suffering when they wrote to encourage their flocks.  They regularly stressed that it was normal, that we had been warned in advance about it, and that it’s all part of the cosmic conflict in which we are on God’s side.  Jesus said that the world would hate us because it hated him first (John 15:18ff).  We in the West have been mostly insulated by the ‘Christian’ nature of our culture from the normality of suffering which is only too familiar to people in Asia, the Middle East and north Africa.

The Apostles’ teaching did not deny the tragedy of their suffering, but placed it into a larger context.  We read of Peter and John rejoicing that they had been considered “worthy” of suffering shame after they had been flogged (Acts 5:41)!  Paul talks about “momentary light affliction” (2 Corinthians 4:17) and says that the suffering of this life cannot be compared to the glory of the next (Romans 8:18).

For millions of Christians around the world, but particularly in the 10/40 window, their faith means that life is a daily struggle to get served in shops, find jobs, be treated fairly by police, and avoid government oppression or mob lynching.  We in the West can help them by funding agencies like Open Doors which work among our persecuted family to protect, empower and advocate.  We can keep informed about their sufferings by following websites like persecution.org, and we can pray using resources like the World Prayer Map.

It can be so tempting for us just to shrug our shoulders and think it’s just another person we don’t know in a country far away.  But let’s not lose sight of the fact that this is our family, we will meet them one day in heaven and rejoice in the stories of their faithfulness even to the point of death (Revelation 12:11).  But until then we are parted from them, and as John Donne wrote in his poem No man is an island:

…any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.

Thine is the Kingdom?

Source: www.sxc.hu

Source: www.sxc.hu

Few would argue with the view that mission workers are sacrificially serving God.  They move far from their homes, often to work in uncomfortable, unstable or unhealthy places.  They risk health, career, family and wealth to follow their call into world mission.  Thousands of mission workers worldwide work selflessly for the God they love and the people God has sent them to.

Or is it selflessly?

On the surface, it certainly looks that way.  But start to dig a bit deeper and in some cases we find that the altruism is not pure and unadulterated.  There may well be an element of self-seeking underlying the sacrifice, maybe the desire to prove that we are the better Christian by making the greater sacrifice.  But for some among us, ministry is more therapy than service.  It may well have our glory as its goal, not God’s, even though we don’t realise it till someone points it out to us.  But it can be betrayed by excessive use of phrases like:

I want to…

I need…

My goal…

While these expressions may not be wrong in themselves, frequent use of them may in fact be an indication that another agenda is being followed – that of the mission worker.

Some of us may have gone into mission to prove that we could achieve something, even though this motivation is subconscious.  In a society that is always desperate to achieve some sort of significance – be it academic, career-focussed promotion, or wealth creation – it is hard not to acquire a streak of competitiveness during our upbringing that we find hard to shake off in later life.

So our ministry (even that expression is a bit of a giveaway!) can be a means to us demonstrating that we can actually achieve something.  While any readers who have read this far into this blog may be incredulous at what I’m suggesting, I see it all too frequently in my ministry (whoops – I mean Syzygy’s ministry!).  It can often be traced back to a childhood authority figure.  A grandparent who said “you’re useless”, a teacher who doubted your capabilities, a church leader who thought you had nothing to offer the church.  And even though they may be long-dead, we’re still trying to prove them wrong.  You can read all about this in a previous blog.

Jesus did not select many high achievers to be his followers.  Matthew possibly was one; he would certainly have been wealthy, but he walked away from it all (Luke 5:28).  The others were probably simple tradesmen.  Even the Biblical characters who had something going for them, like Moses, Joseph or Paul had to be broken, exiled or humbled before God could use them.  God loves to use the insignificant to shame the proud (1 Corinthians 1:27), but that doesn’t mean they become significant.  In fact, they start to delight in being nobodies.

Paul starts one of his earliest letters, Galatians, with “Paul, an apostle not sent by humans but through Jesus Christ”.  His career progression leads to him becoming “least of the apostles” (1 Corinthians 15:9) and ultimately “greatest of sinners” (1 Timothy 1:15).  He ends his life writing “I am being poured out as a drink offering” (2 Timothy 4:6).  Was his career going backwards?  Was he morally deteriorating as he aged?

No.  Like John the Baptist, he knew that the essence of following Jesus is that “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30).  Now would be a good time for each of us to reflect on our ministry, our success, and our achievements and ask ourselves if we’re building God’s kingdom, or our own.

A personal comment on resilience

Source: www.freeimages.com

Source: www.freeimages.com

I am going to end this series of blogs on resilience with something very unusual in five years of blogging – a personal testimony.  Late in 1999 I returned to England in a badly damaged condition after five years of mission service in Africa.  During the previous decade I had suffered overwork and stress, emotional and spiritual abuse, unresolved grief, and frequent illnesses culminating in hepatitis.  And now I had chronic fatigue syndrome!  Unable to care for myself, I moved in with a friend who took care of me as I slowly recovered.

During this time a strange thing happened: I became filled with joy in a way that was completely new to me.  I would spontaneously burst into songs of praise even when walking down the street or in the shower. My prayer life became characterised by gratitude.  I was puzzled that this was at odds with my material state: poor health, no money, no hope of getting a job, the frustration of long-term illness.

And then I realised the essential truth that my spirit was rejoicing in even though my mind was slow to catch up.  Everything really important in life was already taken care of!  God loved me unconditionally.  Christ died for me.  My eternal salvation was secure.  So what if the rest of my mortal life was illness and poverty?

This is the eternal perspective that Paul was able to tap into when enduring his “momentary, light afflictions” (2 Corinthians 4:17).  This is what happens when we have roots that run deep into God so that we can survive the tough times.

It was five years before I was restored to health, and the lessons I learned during that time have been life-transforming.  They enable me to thrive because my essence is focussed on my being, not my doing, and is rooted in God’s acceptance of me in Christ.  They help me even at times of extreme busyness to live as a Mary, not a Martha.  They also provide the experience which now equips me to help others find peace in the midst of their busy and stressful lives.

I pray for each of you reading this blog, that you will also know the sense of heavenly trajectory and peace that comes from having deep roots.  If you don’t, please contact us on info@syzygy.org.uk for a confidential discussion.

“Up” into the light

004When trees are planted close together, they often don’t waste energy growing outwards into the familiar bushy shape we know of a mature solitary oak. This is exemplified in plantations, where they are deliberately placed close together so that they will quickly grow tall and straight to provide good timber. Think pine or gum tree plantations.

The proximity of the trees to each other encourages them all to grow upwards, towards the only source of light. This too should be our goal in life – to grow ‘up’ towards God.

Many of us involved in mission lose sight of this in our enthusiasm to reach out to those who do not yet know Jesus. We organise campaigns, strategies and church plants and in our busyness of keeping the whole thing on the road we somehow forget the real goal of life. David Pawson once said something like “God doesn’t need servants – he’s got plenty of angels.  But he is looking for a bride for his son.”  That does not mean that there is no need for service in the Christian life.  That’s the partnership that results from a growing relationship with God and leads to an ever-deepening intimacy as we see God at work in us and through us.

Last week we considered the proximity of others a source of protection for us, but it should also be a source of spiritual stimulation. If our teams, churches or supporters are not inspiring us to grow towards God, we should be challenging them to.  We are called to be part of a worshipping community, and even though some of us are pioneer workers who are physically separated from others, we still need the encouragement and inspiration of those who support us.  We need to consciously develop deeper relationships in which it is natural to talk about God, what he has done in our lives and written in his word, so that we help one another to grow.

While our mission may be to reach out, our calling is to reach up.  As Alex reminded us a few weeks ago, we should be fixing our eyes on Jesus (Hebrews 12:2). Paul exhorts us to press on towards the upward goal (Philippians 3:14). Maintaining our heavenly perspective enables us to endure the many hardships which we undergo in the course of our mission. Knowing that we suffer for Christ helps us to endure. Understanding that there is glory on the other side of this life frees us from working for glory now… or it should do.

Yet many of us are far more like Martha than Mary (Luke 10:28-42). We rush around doing stuff for Jesus in preference to being with him. For some of us, ministry may even be therapy rather than worship – striving to find identity, meaning and purpose in what we do rather than Who we are doing it with. Mary, on the other hand, contentedly sat at the feet of Jesus listening to what he has to say. I wonder how many of us choose the better part? Or are we simply too busy?

Deep roots

Source: www.freeimages.com

Source: www.freeimages.com

Last week I introduced our series on resilience by quoting Paul’s attitude to his “momentary, light afflictions” (2 Corinthians 4:17).  As I pointed out, these included arbitrary arrest, attempted lynching and transport accidents.  Things which would drive most mission workers to head for home on the first flight, if they hadn’t already been recalled by their HR departments.  So how come Paul was not perturbed by these challenges?  How could he be stoned and left for dead one day, and the next day go to the neighbouring town and carry on preaching the gospel (Acts 14:19-21)?

Paul had deep roots.  He was utterly convinced of God’s love for him despite such trials (Romans 8:38-39).  He was completely persuaded of the need for humanity to hear the gospel (1 Corinthians 9:16), and death held no fear for him because he knew what would happen to him after he died (Philippians 1:20-24).  This enabled him to keep his suffering in perspective – it was nothing compare to what Christ had suffered for him.

How do we develop these deep roots?  To use a sapling as an analogy, trees develop deep roots by going through hardship in the first place.  We know that we need to stake a young tree to stop it blowing over in the first place, but what most of us do not know is that if we stake it too tightly, it is stable and will not develop deep roots.  Only if it’s allowed to wave in the wind will its roots go deeper into the ground to provide more stability.  The more it shakes, the further the roots will go seeking rocks to hang onto.  For us, those rocks are God, and the great truths of our salvation.  When the storm strikes, our response should not be to doubt our calling, or to wonder why God did not help us when we needed him.  It should be to confess our trust in him despite our outward circumstances, as many of the psalms do.

In the psalms we read the thoughts of people going through great trials.  David on the run from a man trying to kill him (Psalm 7), or people taken into exile to a country where they find it hard to worship (Psalm 137).  Yet in many of the psalms which honestly cry out “Where are you God?” there are also great statements of faith and trust, such as in Psalm 13:

How long, O Lord?  Will you forget me forever?

…but I have trusted in your love and my heart will rejoice in your salvation.

Even the 23rd psalm, a great favourite of many who suffer,  acknowledges the existence of the valley of the shadow of death, something to be afraid of, and enemies close at hand, at the same time as trusting in the comforting presence of the shepherd.  Indeed, if all were well, the sheep would not need the shepherd – it’s the very presence of danger and hardship that reminds the sheep of her vulnerability and makes her stay close to the shepherd.

This is why the psalms are a comfort for so many going through hardships – they do not ignore the tragedies and injustices of life, and confess God’s glory and faithfulness as a way to make sense of suffering.  In doing so, the psalmist reorientates himself back to trusting in God as he reconciles his belief in God with his difficult circumstance, either by confessing faith in the midst of adversity or by turning his accusation into a prayer for deliverance.  Having done this, he puts down deeper roots, finding greater stability and life-giving nutrients which will sustain him when the next disaster strikes:

He will be like a deep-rooted tree growing by a river:

It bears fruit in season and its leaves do not wither when there is drought.

Today I am…

Source: www.freeimages.com

Source: www.freeimages.com

You may have come across our series of Easter tweets “Today I am…” This is not a pun on the name of the everlasting God, but an invitation to reflect on who we might be in the Easter story. Are we a bystander, a disciple, a Pharisee or a Roman? Or someone else altogether?  What role do we play?

This is not a new technique for bringing to life an episode in the Bible, but it is not common in evangelical circles. Yet placing ourselves within the story, and not merely reading it, can help to bring it to life in a new way. Asking ourselves what we did or said, or how we felt can help us become players in the drama. For example, imagine you are Peter, sitting by a fire in the courtyard, and for the third time somebody accuses you of being with Jesus, which you vehemently deny. A cock crows, and Jesus looks at you. How does he look? Angry, disappointed, sad? How do you feel? Ashamed, embarrassed, frightened? Asking ourselves to use our senses to imagine the sights, smells and sounds in the story unpacks them in a new way.

Life was not easy for the people Jesus called to follow him. They had seen vast crowds fed, heard incredible teaching and one had even walked on the water. They had faced opposition and criticism.  And now they were in hiding, in fear of their lives. They had started out realising that Jesus wasn’t just a carpenter, but someone special. They accepted him as their rabbi. They came to believe he was the Messiah. Then they feared he was just another failed rebel leader, before finding out that somehow he had come back from the grave, the same but changed, and they came to trust that he was not only the Messiah, but God.  And nearly all of them were executed for believing that.

Likewise we mission workers have to deal with success and failure (“those two imposters”) and the challenges they present to our theology. We can easily be thrown into doubt or confusion when disaster strikes, or triumphalist when it all works out well. We can trust in our own abilities and giftedness or we can wonder whether we heard God right, or whether God has let us down. We can doubt our own calling, or even our own faith.

Paul was no stranger to being buffeted by the storms of a tough life. In 2 Corinthians 11 he lists stoning, beating, imprisonment and shipwreck among his “momentary, light afflictions” (2 Corinthians 4:17, NASB)!  But despite the knocks and hardships, he kept on going. He wrote:

We often suffer, but we are not crushed.
Even when we don’t know what to do, we never give up.
In times of trouble, God is with us,
And when we are knocked down, we get up again.

(2 Corinthian 4:8-9, CEV)

This quality is known as resilience, and it is in great demand. It is a current topic in member care as we all consider how to help people acquire it. Resilience is the rare ability not to be derailed by the challenges we face, and on the odd occasion when we get knocked down, to get up and keep on going. Over the next few weeks we’re going to be doing a mini-series of blogs on resilience. We hope they help mission workers everywhere to keep on keeping on and not despair. We hope to help them discover how, like Paul, they can suffer so much and think it insignificant.

Today, I am Paul…